Birmingham: The Burger Bar Boys. The Cash or Slash Money Crew. The Bang Bang Gang. These names sound straight out of a dime-store novel, but they're real-life Birmingham gangs — some of the underground armies that spearheaded England's worst riots in a generation.
As Britain comes to grips with the causes of the past week's descent into anarchy, Prime Minister David Cameron has identified the growth of gangs as a key factor and is recruiting high-profile American anti-gang experts to help bring them to heel.
While senior British police officers openly resent that move, analysts of gang culture say it seems logical to seek American assistance, because today's British gangs consciously ape American gang ambitions and style, from the bling to the lingo.
They talk in a street patois shaped by US rap lyrics, use noms de guerre lifted straight from American gangster films and crime dramas, and choose such icons as Don Corleone, Al Pacino's Scarface or Baltimore ganglord Stringer Bell of "The Wire" TV series as their avatars on social-networking sites.
"These teenage gangsters are creating their own criminal worlds, and in their minds it's very much an Americanized world. When they talk about the police, it's 'the Feds,' or 'The 5-0,' as in Hawaii 5-0," said Carl Fellstrom, an expert on England's gangs and author of a recent book on the topic, "Hoods."
British law enforcement authorities admit that, until only a few years ago, they sought to minimize the scale and violent potential of their homegrown gangs. They promoted their preferred label of "delinquent youth groups" and billed full-blooded street gangs as an American phenomenon.
In the wake of the August riots — when gangs used text-messaging to deploy break-in artists to breach steel-shuttered shops — politicians now use the "G'' word pointedly.
"Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, the gangs are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes," Cameron told the House of Commons in an emergency debate on the riots. "They earn money through crime, particularly drugs, and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader. They have blighted life on their estates, with gang-on-gang murders and unprovoked attacks on police."
In Birmingham, a reporter took a drive through the contested turf of its working-class west side, a hodgepodge of cramped red-brick rowhouses and gray-concrete 1960s tower blocks where rival Caribbean and Indo-Pakistani gangs long have been at odds. Their feuds have sparked at least four riots since the 1980s.
The police were there too, raiding the home of a gang member believed to be storing loot from the week's gang raids on convenience stores and hi-fi shops.
At one corner, a teenage boy in hooded jacket and green bandanna — color of a predominantly Caribbean gang called BMW, short for Birmingham's Most Wanted — was keeping an eye on "the Feds" as they pounded in the front door of that house and charged in by the dozen in search of stolen electronics and fashion-label clothes.
Such raids have become common sights in gang power bases since rioting subsided Wednesday. The BMW foot soldier texted his gang leader the police's location, using heavily abbreviated code that the "5-0" was raiding the house of an enemy "cru."
The boy, initially hostile to a reporter's questions, warmed up when asked about the cost of a black-market plasma TV.
"It's sale of the century down that end. Everything must go," he said, pointing to a nearby residential cul-de-sac in the opposite direction of the police raid.
The gang's pilfered TVs, he said, were going for one-tenth of their sticker price, and locals were paying in cash in back alleys beyond the reach of Birmingham's network of CCTV cameras. He added with a cheeky smile: "We don't take Visa, but we do home delivery."
English gangs often defend their turf down to the curbstone. Many even attach the postal codes of their district to gang names. They also mark territory with wavy-lettered graffiti of tribal identity that would look at home on a Los Angeles highway underpass.
Virtually every spot on the English map that suffered riots is home turf to one or multiple gangs, according to an interactive online map called London Street Gangs and related gang-mapping efforts by the Metropolitan Police and University of Bedfordshire youth-crime expert John Pitts.
One riot spot, Enfield in north London where a Sony distribution center was ransacked, hosts a half-dozen active gangs including Dem Africans, Red Brick Crew and Gun Man Down. The south London borough of Croydon, scene of the worst arson attacks and the fatal shooting of a 26-year-old man, is the power base for the Don't Say Nothin gang.
While the wide-open shops in London inspired citizens from all walks of life to loot, police say gangs formed the theft-savvy vanguard. CCTV footage of certain riot zones clearly shows groups carting off goods with their faces hidden by gang-branded bandanas, baseball caps and jacket hoods.
The north London borough of Tottenham, where the fatal police shooting of alleged gang member Mark Duggan on Aug. 4 triggered the first riot two days later, has at least a dozen gangs rooted in the vicinity.
Duggan was a reputed member of The Stars gang in Tottenham and a relative of a major crime family in Manchester, northwest England. Police say Duggan, 29, was transporting a loaded Italian handgun hidden in a sock at the time of the police ambush. His last recorded words were a text to his pregnant girlfriend: "The Feds are following me."
Roy Gisby, who helps manage a London-wide charity called In-volve that tries to steer youths away from drugs and gangs, said how the violence spread from Tottenham demonstrated the hallmarks of gang direction. The lead rioters in attacks on shops brought cars for both getaways and carrying heavy loads, and deployed members using preset gang text lists to tie down police, he said.
"It's gang-led, no doubt about that," said Gisby, 59. "Look at what happened in Tottenham. The youngsters were kept in the streets there to riot, while the older ones went north to rob Enfield. It might've looked like chaos, but there was an order to it."
In Nottingham, the city of Robin Hood fame, gang members wearing the red bandanna of one of the city's biggest gangs, St. Ann's Posse, tossed gasoline bombs at a police station before ransacking a sportswear store. The following night, the city's other major gang, the Radford Boys, showed up in their black bandanas to lob Molotov cocktails at their turf's own police station, too.
"Radford didn't like that their big rivals were getting all the media attention, so they had to put on a show of force too," said Fellstrom, whose book focused on Nottingham gangs.
A national study by the Home Office, responsible for law and order in England, estimates that 6 percent of all boys and girls aged 10 to 19 — or around 50,000 people — are members of gangs. They're sometimes recruited by older gang members to serve as drug couriers, making deliveries by bike with little risk of being stopped by police, just as in the United States.
The starkest difference between British and American gangs is the firepower. In gun-control Britain, only the bigger gangs make firearms — smuggled in with drugs shipments from Holland, North Africa and the Caribbean — their weapon of choice. For UK teenage apprentices and wannabes, the knife is still king.
Most of the more than 5,000 stabbings a year in Britain, according police and social workers, are gangs attacking rivals who strayed into their areas, muscled into their rackets, or simply insulted them.
Already this year in London, eight teenagers have been stabbed to death. One wouldn't hand over his cell phone. Another was stopping a bicycle-borne gang from chasing his younger brother.
Such bloodshed pales in comparison to the epicenter of gang culture, Los Angeles, where an estimated 90,000 gang members have been blamed for the majority of 297 murders last year. The LA gang model is the world export leader, with chapters throughout the United States and Central America. Dozens of British gangs brand themselves as L.A.-style Crips and Bloods, too, although no true trans-Atlantic affiliation exists.
But even before England's August riots, gangs cast a bigger statistical shadow in London than in New York, where official crime figures last year recorded just 228 gang-related crimes — in a city that suffered 18,000 robberies and 532 murders. While experts there estimate New York's gangs to have around 17,000 members, they stick to business and discourage inter-gang conflict over turf.
"New York doesn't have clearly demarcated gang territories," said David Brotherton, a youth gang expert and chairman of the sociology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Britain's Cameron has just recruited the Los Angeles Police Department's former commander, William Bratton, to be his adviser on anti-gang tactics. Bratton previously commanded the police in Boston and New York, where his tactics were credited with greatly reducing gang-related bloodshed. Cameron and Bratton are expected to promote ideas pioneered 15 years ago in Boston by Harvard academic-turned-crime fighter David Kennedy.
Kennedy's "Boston strategy" seeks public meetings of police, probation workers, welfare providers, community residents, and a target audience of gang members. The discussions have been credited with delivering sharp drops in gang-related killings in Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati.
"It is now absolutely demonstrable that there is a better way to do this. There is a 15-year history in the United States in city after city after city. We don't think that London can fix its gang problem. We know it can fix it," Kennedy said.
While England has been slow to address its growth of gang culture, the gang-infested capital of Scotland — Glasgow — has already imported the Boston method.
Karen McCluskey, a director of Scotland's Violence Reduction Unit, in 2008 held her first Boston-style mass meeting with gang members in a Glasgow courthouse. She said gang members were shocked to learn the wealth of intelligence police held about them, appeared unaware of the range of help on offer, and were shamed by stories of how their behavior had terrified their neighborhoods.
McCluskey said her colleagues were skeptical that American anti-gang techniques could be imported meaningfully to Scotland, then watched Glasgow's gang-related violent crimes fall 46 percent in the past three years because of them.
"It's easy to say that the approach won't work here because of this difference or that difference," Kennedy said. "The one thing we've learned is that the differences don't make a difference."
First Published: Sunday, August 14, 2011, 23:26